Urinary incontinence - Symptoms 

Symptoms of urinary incontinence 

Lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS)

The lower urinary tract comprises the bladder and the urethra (the tube through which urine passes out of the body).

Lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) are common in men and women as they get older. An estimated 6 out of 10 people aged 60 years or over are affected.

LUTS include:

  • problems with storing urine, such as an urgent or frequent need to go to the toilet, or feeling like you need to go straight after you have just been 
  • problems with passing urine, such as a slow stream of urine, straining to pass urine or stopping and starting as you pass urine 
  • problems after you have passed urine, such as feeling that you've not completely emptied your bladder or passing a few drops of urine after you think you've finished

LUTS can have a number of causes, such as problems with the bladder or the prostate gland in men. If you experience LUTS, see your GP as it may be possible to treat the cause.

Experiencing LUTS can make urinary incontinence more likely. 

For more information, read about the causes of urinary incontinence

Having urinary incontinence means you pass urine unintentionally because of a loss of bladder control. 

When and how this happens varies depending on the type of urinary incontinence you have.

Common types of urinary incontinence

Over 9 out of 10 cases of urinary incontinence are stress incontinence or urge incontinence.

Stress incontinence

Stress incontinence is when you leak urine when your bladder is put under extra sudden pressure, for example when you cough. It is not related to feeling stressed. Other physical activities that may cause urine to leak include: 

  • sneezing 
  • laughing 
  • heavy lifting 
  • exercise

The amount of urine passed is usually small, but stress incontinence can also cause you to pass larger amounts, particularly if your bladder is very full.

Urge incontinence

Urge incontinence, or urgency incontinence, is when you feel a sudden and very intense need to pass urine and you are unable to delay going to the toilet. There is often only a few seconds between the need to urinate and the release of urine.

Your need to pass urine may be triggered by a sudden change of position, or even by the sound of running water. You may also pass urine during sex, particularly when you reach orgasm.

If you have urge incontinence, you may need to pass urine very frequently and you may need to get up several times during the night to urinate.

Less common types of urinary incontinence

Mixed incontinence

Mixed incontinence is when you have symptoms of both stress and urge incontinence. For example, you may leak urine if you cough or sneeze, and also experience very intense urges to pass urine.

Overactive bladder syndrome (OAB)

OAB is similar to urge incontinence as it causes an urgent and frequent need to pass urine. However, many people with OAB only have symptoms of urgency and frequency and do not have incontinence as well. 

Overflow incontinence

Overflow incontinence, also called chronic urinary retention, occurs when the bladder cannot completely empty when you pass urine. This causes the bladder to swell above its usual size.  

Overflow incontinence is common in men who have an enlarged prostate gland. This is a small gland located between the penis and the bladder which can obstruct the bladder if it is enlarged.

If you have overflow incontinence, you may pass small trickles of urine very often. It may also feel as though your bladder is never fully empty and you cannot empty it even when you try.

Total incontinence

Urinary incontinence that is severe and continuous is sometimes known as total incontinence. It usually occurs:

  • as a result of a bladder disorder that is present from birth 
  • after surgery
  • following an injury

Total incontinence may cause you to constantly pass large amounts of urine, even at night. Or, you may pass large amounts of urine only sometimes, and leak small amounts in between.

Page last reviewed: 21/09/2012

Next review due: 21/09/2014


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